Britain’s main opposition party has narrowly voted to maintain a neutral stance on the country’s most divisive topic, Brexit, after chaotic scenes at the party’s conference Monday evening prompted fresh criticism from both internal party activists and senior political opponents.
Much of the party’s ordinary membership are in favor of the U.K.’s continued membership in the European Union, but Labour chief Jeremy Corbyn has long remained publicly ambivalent on the subject in a bid to hold his party and its supporters together ahead of an expected national election.
But those efforts were severely tested as the party’s ruling body put forward a series of proposals on Brexit, many of which had been crafted by dozens of the local Labour constituencies over the course of several days.
Corbyn’s team had insisted that the party remain agnostic for now on whether the U.K. should leave or remain in Europe, and demanded that a final decision be made at another future meeting; at an undetermined time and after a putative election victory.
Jo Swinson, the leader of another opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, issued a statement that called Corbyn’s plan “yet another fudge on the biggest issue facing our country.” Her party has promised to cancel Brexit altogether if it ever takes power, and has been winning over some potential Labour voters in recent polls.
Divided Labour Party
Those Labour activists and party officials who are concerned about those departing voters, and who also advocate remaining in the EU, had put forward a separate proposal Monday.
It would have forced the party to adopt a clear policy in favor of continued EU membership, but it was marginally defeated in a vote of raised hands that even the meeting’s chairwoman acknowledged had been hard to judge with total certainty.
Labour Party conference participants include trade union members who have a powerful voice in all such votes, and Corbyn allies had earlier predicted that they would help push his preferred plan over the line.
“I think they’d be more likely to back the NEC (National Executive Committee) statement on the issue,” had been the prediction from Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s deputy economic spokesperson in the U.K. parliament.
He told CNBC that he thought union votes would likely overwhelm the local constituencies who wanted the party to adopt a clear position on remaining in Europe.
Decisions taken at conference are not entirely binding on the party as it prepares its electoral platform, and the electoral implications for Labour because of this continued ambiguity remains unclear itself. Nevertheless other opposition parties quickly seized on this latest development.
“This is a real abdication of leadership,” said Stephen Gethins, the spokesperson on Europe for the Scottish National Party (SNP). “It beggars belief that more than three years after the EU referendum, and knowing the damage Brexit will do, Labour is still arguing over its position.”
Labour has seen the number of its lawmakers that represent constituencies in Scotland fall dramatically over the past decade, in large part thanks to the rise of the SNP. And although it picked up several seats in the 2017 U.K. election, it no longer enjoys the same dominance that it did during the second half of last century. A majority of Scottish voters chose to remain in the EU during the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Second Brexit referendum?
Early advocates of a second Brexit referendum may take solace in the fact that such a plebiscite is now firmly part of the Labour party’s platform.
Keir Starmer, a high-profile proponent of a second public vote, is Labour’s point person on Brexit and has occasionally disagreed publicly with Corbyn. He insisted once again yesterday in a speech that “the people must have the final say.”
He told the audience his desire to remain part of Europe was well-known, but he “profoundly” respected those that take a different view.
“We owe it to those who want to leave to secure that leave deal and put it to them in a referendum.” But for now, the Labour party still does not have a plan for how it would campaign during that referendum.